On the ridge.....
Photo by Andy Leach
Oh......why do I like to climb mountains in winter? I asked myself this several times as the icy wind tore through the hood of my jacket and my right foot was numb with cold.
This thought never occurred to me about four weeks prior when ATTM (Barry) and I began to plan a trip for the Veterans Day weekend. Since my winter experience was limited, we looked for a peak with a relatively benign route and minimal avalanche danger. Ryan Schilling gave us a great idea when he suggested the northeast ridge of Marble Mountain in the Sangre de Cristo range near Westcliffe, Colorado.
There were several others who were interested in this trip, but it ended up being Barry, myself, and my old Crestones partner, Andy. I remarked later to Andy how it was funny we were always meeting up in the Sangres to climb. Together, we had done Crestone Peak, Kit Carson/Challenger Point, and now were making an attempt on Marble Mountain.
Barry volunteered to drive his 4-wheel drive Toyota pick-up which was our ticket to the trailhead and would save us six miles of hiking. Our drive from Texas/Oklahoma was not without drama. We drove through a tornado(?) in New Mexico and saw a high speed chase in Trinidad. Arriving at South Colony trailhead and seeing the road was like meeting an old friend which you really didn’t want to meet. Luckily, we still had some daylight as we begain churning up one of the roughest roads in Colorado. The plan was for Barry and I to drive up to the trailhead, set up camp, then return to Westcliffe where we would meet Andy. The road was definitely worse than the year before. Snow covered the road after a mile or so and Barry’s truck struggled in the slick conditions. About a half-mile before the trailhead, the truck was stopped by a steep snowy hill. We backed up and set up camp at the bottom of the hill. With camp established, our butts were puckered as we negotiated the road in the dark to get Andy.
It was early so we decided to get something to eat. As we walked in to the local pizza joint, there sat Andy with his mouth full of Calzone and drinking a Fat Tire. After a hearty spaghetti dinner and we were off to sort gear at the local gas station. We figured that sorting gear where it was warmer and lighter would be much easier than in the cold and darkness.
Our second trip up the road would prove to be more interesting. It had snowed a bit more and Barry had to make several running attempts at some of the steeper sections. I believe that will be the last time this year a vehicle makes it up that road. We crawled into bed with my new tent heater going strong. If you are going to winter car camp, get you one of these little Coleman tent heaters. It kept our tent at about 45 degrees when it was about 15 degrees outside.
Up early as usual. The morning was very still, cold, and quiet. A quick breakfast and sorting of gear and off we went. The trail was fairly easy to follow, and when it was not easy to follow, the consensus was to go “up”. After a quarter mile or so, the snow began to deepen and Andy and I opted for snow shoes. For some reason Barry decided to leave his snowshoes behind. Until the end of time, I will never understand why he didn’t bring them. Anyway, we pushed on while Barry struggled through snow to his knees. The weather was still fairly mild at this time but we could feel the wind picking up the higher we got up the mountain.
We arrived at point 10,725 where things got a little confusing. With no reference points due to the clouds, we got out the map and compass to sort out which direction to continue. What was confusing was that all trails led downhill. I failed to notice on the map that we had to actually descend a couple of hundred feet to continue up the ridge. But....with it figured out, we found a cairn and continued up the mountain. Still in the trees, we watched Barry continued to struggle in the deep snow while the weather was taking a turn for the worse.
Arriving at treeline, the winds had picked up significantly and it was much colder. We stopped to eat a snack, put on more clothes, and rest. Barry was getting wiped out from about a mile of post-holing through waist-deep snow. At one point, he was crawling on his hands and knees. Immediately after leaving the trees the wind began to howl, the temperature dropped, and it began to lightly snow. We were still at least an hour and a half from the summit which loomed above us in the blowing snow.
At first, we kept the snowshoes on to combat the icy slope, but soon the tundra was replaced with talus which forced us to remove the shoes and continue in boots. Barry was grateful for the change of surface and we all trudged toward the summit. Andy set a pretty good pace up the mountain, but we all began to struggle against the wind and cold. As usual, my stomach was not 100%. Just once, I would like to climb a mountain without getting sick. What a novel thought!
Andy and I stashed our snowshoes about halfway up the slope. Andy and Barry pulled ahead of me as we approached the summit. I watched Andy “summit”, then he continued to climb. The realization that he was on a false summit was rather disheartening, but when you get that far, you keep going.
Finally on top with 40 mph blowing snow and at about 20 F degrees. Oh....why do I climb mountains in winter? I asked myself this several times as the icy wind tore through the hood of my jacket and my right foot was numb with cold. While waiting for the group photo, I realized the answer, and grinned while standing together with two friends on the summit of this spectacular peak.
Our descent was uneventful. I was pretty weak from not eating all day and my speed was affected by it. Barry and Andy patiently waited for me on at least two occasions which I greatly appreciated. The weather improved as we got into the trees and I felt better after I sucked down a power gel. Afterward, we made relatively good time back to camp, and it was dark as we began our drive down the rough road. Realizing that our aspirations were greater than our ability, we all decided to forego our climb of Horn Peak the next day.
The best thing about not taking Diamox is the ability to have a beer at the end of the day. We ordered a monster pizza and a few frosty Fat Tires. I watch Andy eat about 90% of the pizza while Barry and I managed only a couple of pieces. Barry and I crashed at a local bed and breakfast in Westcliffe, while Andy headed home to eat the rest of his pizza.
Thanks guys. It was hard, but fun, and I know now why I like to climb mountains in winter. Click here for the answer!
Marble Mountain with the northeast ridge on the right skyline.
Photo by ATTM